The Atheist Delusion: How the Religion of Progressive Thinking Poisons Everything; or, Reasoning with Dawkins and Hitchens, Part 2

In addition to such easy targets as Iranian mullahs, Polynesian tribesmen, and Aztec priests who eviscerated live victims every morning before breakfast to ensure that the sun would rise, Dawkins and Hitchens sneer at more or less everyone and everything (whether they are relevant to “religion” or not). The list of those who offend their moral and intellectual sensibilities is too long to reproduce here, so I offer this brief sample, in more or less reverse chronological order:

They amuse themselves thoroughly at the expense of George Dubya, of course, a Bible-thumping cretin who, abetted by the “Christian Fascists” of the Religious Right (the “American Taliban”) narrowly failed to impose a medieval theocracy upon an unsuspecting Republic. (So unsuspecting was I throughout the Bush administration, that I quite failed to notice the public scourgings of heretics and adulterers, the repeal of Roe v. Wade, or the proclamation of Evangelical Christianity as America’s Established Religion; even as I failed to recognize the supposedly purely secular, atheistic values of the Founders.) When Dawkins writes of Bush that “God told him to invade Iraq” just as the Yorkshire Ripper “distinctly heard the voice of Jesus telling him to kill women”, of what, precisely, does he mean to demonstrate his disapprobation? Of God, for counseling such an ill-considered policy? (But God doesn’t exist; he’s a delusion.) Of Bush, for being so conceited as to think God speaks to him, or so cynical as to exploit religion to further his political agenda? (In either case, it’s an indictment of Bush, not “religion”) Of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq (fair enough, but I thought it was oil, rather than doing the Lord’s will, that Bush was after)?

Pope John Paul II’s devotion to the Virgin was indicative of his “polytheistic hankerings”. When he attributed his survival of an assassin’s bullet to the intervention of Our Lady of Fatima, Dawkins wonders – this is his best quip – “why she didn’t guide it to miss him”.

About Mother Teresa (with whom his obsession may have become clinical), Hitchens tells the story for the umpteenth time of her complicity with the “silly British evangelist” Malcolm Muggeridge in the merchandising of her fake miracles. (Along with Orwell, whom Hitchens professes to admire, Muggeridge was reporting on the Party purges, vast network of penal colonies, murderous campaigns of repression, and man-made famines engineered by Lenin and Stalin, and refuting their useful idiots in the West, long before the silly Hitchens, heeding neither, became a card-carrying Communist.) Recommending Hitchens’ book The Missionary Position (another cutely irreverent titular flourish) to “anyone tempted to be taken in by” her, Dawkins calls Mother Teresa a “sanctimonious hypocrite”, and adds the following (which I quote, in order to give the reader a sense of his unerring ability to make the significant (the debate about abortion) seem trivial and the trivial (the Nobel Peace Prize) seem significant:

The contemplation of embryos really does seem to have the most extraordinary effect upon many people of faith. Mother Teresa of Calcutta actually said, in her speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, ‘The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion.’ What? How can a woman with such cock-eyed judgment be taken seriously on any topic, let alone be thought seriously worthy of a Nobel Prize.

(As worthy as Gore and Obama? Dawkins might be forgiven for believing that the definition of a SERIOUS candidate for the Nobel Prize is any fellow liberal, inasmuch as that has certainly been the impression given by the Nobel Committee of late. But the fact that in spite of her illiberal views, they could not deny the candidacy of Mother Teresa – probably her greatest miracle –, merely proves how heroic her work on behalf of the poor and powerless must have been.)

The incomparably learned Swiss psychiatrist and authority on myth and religion C. G. Jung is derided by Dawkins as one who either suffered from hallucinations or believed in fairies. He scoffs at Jung’s claim to have had direct experience of the Divine in visions and dreams as another self-delusion inflicted by blind faith (“Jung also believed that books on his shelf spontaneously exploded with a loud bang”). If he had actually read the works of Jung, as any serious critic of religion surely must, Dawkins might have noticed that his entire twenty-volume corpus is an indictment of religious fideism.

As Hitchens refers to him, St. Francis is the “mammal” who “used to lecture to birds”. St. Augustine “was a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus.” To these insults, Hitchens adds his ubiquitous, all-purpose disqualifier, anti-Semitism, and notes that Augustine believed that the earth was six thousand years old (!). Having been a “personal authority” on the subject, Augustine, according to Dawkins, merely exemplifies Christianity’s “nasty little preoccupation” with sin. Notably Dawkins’ sole quotation from Augustine is culled from another recent anti-religious polemic, which suggests the extent of his familiarity with Augustine’s opus, and his curiosity. Augustine’s usefulness is in any case limited to his providing a few more anti-religious talking points, such as might be passed on from one atheist manual to another.

St. Paul was a misogynist whose vision on the road to Damascus was the product of an epileptic fit, and his letters are a “wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying”. He so despised the world that, along with St. John, he had “deranged fantasies” about its destruction, “one of the very many connections between religious belief and the sinister, spoiled, selfish childhood of our species” being “the repressed desire to see everything smashed up and ruined and brought to naught”. (Hitchens)

I cite these examples merely to illustrate the breathtaking superficiality with which Dawkins and Hitchens treat of minds as complex, imaginatively rich, and monumentally influential as those of Jung, Augustine or Paul. It is instructive that while the ideas of obscure cult leaders, Ozarkian scriptural literalists, and self-anointed prophets Googled on the Internet are given page after page of careful exposition, the works and legacy of Augustine are dispatched with a few barbs of what their writers regard as devastating wit. As Professor Peter Harrison (Chair of Science and Religion at Oxford) observed in a 2007 review of The God Delusion, “the case presented violates a standard principle of academic debate – that the most powerful critiques are those that succeed against the strongest version of the opponent’s position”. Dawkins and Hitchens do not mention, let alone intellectually contend with, the religious thought of Origen, Meister Eckhardt, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, Bonaventure, Nicolas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, More, or (amongst modern Christian thinkers or theologians) Simone Weil, Tillich, Maritain, Gilson, Danielou, de Lubac, or Hugo Rahner, before whose intellectual sophistication, greatness of soul, erudition, and humanity, they would surely tremble. I do not here accuse them of deliberate suppression, as Professor Harrison seems to do; the suppression of ideas requires that the suppressor has heard of their authors.

 

The Bible for Idiots: Dawkins and Hitchens as Biblical Exegetes

The sneering of Hitchens and Dawkins ascends to full cruising altitude whenever they cast their Menippean gaze downward upon the moral enormities, historical anomolies, and logical impossibilities of Scripture and Christian doctrine. Dawkins infers from the story of Noah’s Flood that “God took a dim view of humans”, drowning the lot including innocent children. He disapproves of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah principally on the grounds that it betrays an unprogressive attitude toward homosexuality; moreover, Lot’s “halo” is somewhat tarnished by his offer to hand over to the Sodomites his virgin daughters instead, which “tells us something about the respect accorded [sic] to women in this intensely religious culture”. In Judges 19, Dawkins finds another illustration of the Old Testament’s “misogynistic ethos”, in an analogous narrative whose didactic message he epitomizes with his usual, too-obvious irony: “Enjoy yourselves by humiliating and raping my daughter and this priest’s concubine, but show a proper respect for my guest who is, after all, male.” Aside from his strange inability to recognize in these biblical loci inflections of ubiquitous mythological archetypes (as they have been recognized by theologians for two millennia), Dawkins exults in the decidedly unscholarly habit of viewing a three-thousand-year-old text through the anachronistic prism of modern liberal ideology. Clearly he would have been much better disposed to the Old Testament had the Bronze Age Hebrews held Gay Pride Parades and included the Equal Rights Amendment as an appendix to the Decalogue.

In a chapter of twenty-plus pages, Dawkins flogs himself through the Old Testament in search of moral anachronisms, exhaustively re-telling the patriarchal narratives for the benefit of what he assumes is a scripturally illiterate readership, and coaching his readers along the way as to when they should be properly horrified (“Yes, you read correctly”[!]). Since Abraham is the founding father of three religions, surely, Dawkins reasons, he ought to be “a role model”. But when he went to Egypt to “tough out a famine”, he expediently “passed off” his wife as his sister. Sarah thus entered Pharaoh’s harem and Abraham consequently “became rich”, but God disapproved of “this cosy arrangement, and sent plagues on [sic] Pharaoh and his house (why not on Abraham?)”. Angry that Abraham had deceived him about Sarah, Pharaoh “then handed her back to Abraham and kicked them both out of Egypt”. “Weirdly”, Dawkins adds, “it seems that the couple later tried to pull the same stunt again”. After narrating the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in his usual patronizing detail and puerile style, Dawkins accuses God of “bullying” and Abraham of “child abuse” (one of the leitmotives of the contemporary attack on religion), and quips that Abraham’s is “the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders’ “. Later when discussing the “barking mad” Christian doctrine of the Redemption (“If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?…Who is God trying to impress?”), Dawkins says that the Crucifixion is even more “sado-masochistic” than the story of “Abraham setting out to barbecue Isaac”. Our author animadverts sarcastically upon the childishness of “faith-heads”, as he calls them, but that unfortunate locution, along with “barbecue”, “tough out”, “suck up to God”, and other similarly infantile usages leap with such alacrity to his lips as to indicate a mind permanently stuck in adolescence. Notwithstanding the portrait on the dust-jacket of a man greying around the temples, I am often moved to wonder, by the cool colloquialism of these biblical paraphrases, whether The God Delusion was ghost-written by a ten-year-old.

Hitchens’ exegetical prose is somewhat more adult, but his humour is equally juvenile, and his substance no more edifying. If God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh, what, Hitchens affects to wonder, did he do on the eighth? Do you want proof that Genesis was not written by “god” but by “ignorant men”? One paragraph, declares Hitchens, is all he needs: In Genesis, man is given dominion over all the beasts, “but no dinosaurs or plesiosaurs or pterodactyls are specified, because the authors did not know of their existence…” (!) (In the ensuing paragraph, Hitchens goes on to list marsupials, bacteria, and germs, amongst the species of which “god”/the human writers of Genesis were ignorant.) The whole of the Pentateuch is in fact “an ill carpentered” fiction that could not have been written by Moses (!), since it sometimes refers to him in the third-person, and even includes a record of his death and burial. (“It is to be presumed that the account of the funeral was not written by the man whose funeral it was, though this problem does not seem to have occurred to whoever fabricated the text.”) “Moses” then goes on to record other events (which Hitchens carefully enumerates) post-mortem. In Deuteronomy, Moses assembles his followers and delivers the decalogue all over again. But then the Pentateuch contains two discrepant accounts of creation, two genealogies of Adam, and two naratives of the Flood. (But then, how ignorant, indeed, must Hitchens assume his “theist” readers to be, that they would find this information shocking or revelatory.)

 

The Gospels fail the test of historicity no less miserably. Both Dawkins and Hitchens alight triumphantly upon the chronological impossibilities and narrative inconsistencies in the Evangelists’ accounts of the Nativity and Flight into Egypt. (Dawkins – never one to miss an opportunity for vulgarity – notes that in dating the census, Luke “screws up” ). Both point out the discrepancies in Jesus’ genealogy, about which Dawkins impatiently inquires: “Why don’t [Christians] notice those glaring contradictions?”. (To which the only response is that they do, the Fathers of the Church having recognized them in the second century A.D., and discovered several that Dawkins has missed.) For Hitchens, the Virgin Birth is the clearest possible proof that “humans were involved in the manufacture of a legend”. But having declared it a myth, he still devotes two long paragraphs to the logical absurdities that make it historically incredible (i.e, mythological):

Jesus…never mentions that his mother is or was a virgin, and is repeatedly very rude and coarse to her…She herself appears to have no memory of the Archangel Gabriel’s visitation…telling her that she is the mother of god. In all acounts, everything her son does comes to her as a complete surprise…What’s he saying when he curtly reminds her that he’s on his father’s business? One might have expected a stronger maternal memory, especially from someone who had undergone the experience, alone among all women, of discovering herself pregnant without every having undergone the notorious preconditions for that happy state…Then there is the extraordinary matter of Mary’s large brood…

But what does one do with “wit” that is so pleased with itself and yet so hopelessly trite? Must it be proven that the Virgin Birth is a myth? As early as c. 160 A.D., the Christian Apologist Justin Martyr enumerated the systematic analogies between the Christian narrative of the birth of Christ and the pagan myths of the miraculous conception of Perseus, Hercules, Bacchus, et al. Who does not now know that the cosmogony in Genesis, the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Fall, the Flood, the patriarchal narratives, the Mosaic cycle, are myths? Dawkins and Hitchens besport themselves at the literalism of religious fundamentalists, but in their mocking deconstructions, they analyze the Bible as if it were a modern scientific record of historical events. They are no less tone-deaf to the music, mystery, and universal truth of mythological symbols than the Pharisees were to the spirit of the Law.

In exposing the logical absurdities and inconsistencies of Scripture, Dawkins and Hitchens seem to be wholly unaware that Jewish and Christian exegetes have known about them since the time of Philo and Origen. Hitchens ridicules the “insanely detailed regulations” of the Law concerning ear-piercing, the goring of oxes, the punctilio of sacrifice and propitiation, and so on, but in doing so he has apparently forgotten that St. Paul had repudiated the legalism and piety of gesture of Pharisaical Judaism two thousand years earlier in that “wasteland of rant and complaint and nonsense and bullying” that are his letters. (In decrying the logical inconsistencies of Scripture, you would think Hitchens would be more careful not to contradict himself within the scope of his own small work. At least the multiple human authors of the Bible had the excuse of having lived in different centuries.) Hitchens knows so little about early Christian history and New Testament criticism, in fact, that, while scoffing at the Church’s choice of four authentic Gospels as merely arbitrary, he uses the term “synoptic” as a synonym for “canonical”.

While exhaustively demonstrating that the Old Testament was not written by Moses or “god”, and that the Gospels contradict one another, surely Dawkins and Hitchens ought to have recalled – if Patristics is too arcane a subject for them – that the multiple human authorship of Scripture has been a settled question since the “higher” or “form” criticism of the nineteenth century. Every first-year seminarian now knows about the Old Testament redactors “J”, “E”, “P”, and “D”, and about the uncertain relations amongst the synoptics, between the synoptics and the Gospel of John, and between all four and the ur-gospel “Q”. But Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ breathless expositions, replete with exclamation marks, read as if they are revealing these mysteries for the first time. They are as excited about their exegetical discoveries as pre-pubescent children who, having learned that babies aren’t really delivered by storks but are engendered by more interesting means, are furious with their parents for having lied to them, and intent upon divulging the shocking details for the wonder and gratitude of their peers.

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